#TBT Sex Ed History – Like a Virgin, Feeding Cake to a Snake For The Very First Time

How do you know if someone’s a virgin? Well, you could call in an expert. You know, like a doctor. Or a bee. Or a snake. All have been asked to comment on the subject, and all are pretty equally qualified. 

“Virginity tests” have been around for centuries in most patriarchal cultures. They have almost always been applied to people with vulvas, though there are some phallic exceptions. Some tests use magic, some rely on the wisdom of animals, and some examine bodily fluids or anatomy. The tests also can’t quite agree on what exactly a virgin even is. “Virginity,” after all, is a cultural term, not a medical one.  But while the methods and definitions vary greatly, all these tests have one thing in common – their complete and utter uselessness.

Cakes for Snakes

According to the poet Propertius, in the 1st century BCE, there was at least one Roman snake who really loved barley cake and virgins. Residing in Lanuvium, home of the cult of Juno Sospita was worshiped, this snake demanded to be delivered cake via virgins annually. So every year, a parade of cake-bearing girls would head down to the snake’s cave. They would hand him the cakes. If they were virgins, he would happily accept the cake, and the girl could return home. If they were not, he would kill them and possibly eat them. (Even though he already had cake!)

However, the snake eventually became less gluttonous, or sired more compassionate snake children. Four centuries later, the snake was reportedly still receiving his annual offering of cakes from girls. He would again accept and eat the cakes of the virgins. If someone was not a virgin, however, he would drop their cake to the ground. The ants would carry the cake away, and the girl would be sent back home to be shamed because for some reason everyone cared about this magical snake’s opinion. 

While it’s unclear whether or not anything resembling this rite was ever actually practiced, the story was popular enough to make it onto a Roman coin.

(Not) Getting Down to Beesiness

Somewhere over the last two to three centuries, bees got sexy. While there’s no clear origin story for the phrase “the birds and the bees,” they became loosely associated with human reproduction due to uncomfortable adults flailing about for sex metaphors to give to children. Something, something, pollination, babies, storks, go ask your mother. That kind of thing.

But to the Ancient Greeks and Romans and Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, bees were symbols of purity and chastity. They were commonly thought to be virgins, possibly springing forth spontaneously from rotting, dead oxen. (This is wildly wrong. Honeybees, for example, don’t just have sex – they have death-by-exploding-penis sex.)

While not an official “test,” some believed that a virgin could walk through a swarm of bees without getting stung. They didn’t just limit their judgement to the unwed, though. Frankly, these virgin bees seemed a bit prudish. They reportedly did not like people having sex, drinking, or even wearing artificial perfumes. Beekeepers were often advised to abstain from sex before honey harvesting, as bees would be more likely to sting you if they got even a whiff of sexual activity. During the 1st century CE, Roman agriculturist Columella recommended at least a two-day window between any canoodling and beekeeping activities.

That’s the wrong hole, Magnus

Snakes and bees are fun, but they can be unpredictable and hard to come by. For maximum efficiency on your virginity test, try inspecting someone’s urine! Pseudo-Albertus Magnus, a 13th century man of science, declared that the pee of a virgin would be white and sparkling. The pee of a woman who had sex, however, would be muddied due to skin rupture and semen. Did Mangus know that the urethra and the vagina were two separate body parts? It’s unclear. 

But if you’re wary about the advice offered by Magnus, never fear. You have other options. According to William of Saliceto, you can tell a virgin from a non-virgin simply by sound. A virgin will have a daintier, more prolonged stream, while someone who has had sex will pee more forcefully for a shorter period of time. If you really want to get creative, you can have someone pee on some marshmallow plant in the evening, and then check them in the morning. If they’re still looking fresh, they’re soaked in virgin pee. If they’re not looking so hot, that’s going to be non-virgin pee. Either way, your marshmallow plant is soaked in pee.

Modern Mythology

Whether it uses a snake or a speculum, there’s absolutely no such thing as an accurate virginity test. Currently, the two most common versions of the virginity test are the “two-finger test” and the hymen examination. In practice, these tests are often combined. In the two-finger test, two fingers are inserted into the vagina to feel the vaginal wall. In a virgin, the vaginal wall would supposedly be tighter and the vaginal opening would be smaller. Of course, this isn’t the case. The vagina is made of muscle. Expecting the vagina of someone whose had sex to be “looser” is like expecting someone’s throat to get looser because they ate food.

Anatomical Illustration by Nyk Rayne
Green, L. (2018) Sex Plus. New York, NY: Harper Collins, pp. 7. illus.

The hymen examination looks, of course, at the hymen. The hymen is a thin membrane found near the opening of the vagina.  There’s no real consensus on what purpose, if any, the hymen serves. It mostly seems to just sit there in vagina and minds its own business. Despite this, the poor hymen has acquired quite the terrible reputation as an indicator of virginity. There is a widely-held belief that all hymens completely, or nearly completely, cover the vaginal opening, and that it will “break” and bleed the first time someone has sex. Those that subscribe to this belief also state that, by examining the shape, size, and general state of the hymen, you can determine whether or not someone is a virgin.

But guess what? That’s not how hymens work! Because of course it isn’t! Why would a vagina have a pop-top? It doesn’t need it. You aren’t going to crack open a cold vagina with the boys on Friday night. Just like you can’t look at someone’s hands to see if they’ve ever caught a baseball, you can’t look at a hymen and see if it’s ever encountered a penis.

In actuality, most hymens are made up of just a small amount of tissue that forms a crescent or a ring shape, a great deal of variation in hymen shape, size, and thickness is common. They can stretch, tear, and even repair throughout someone’s life. Some people with vaginas will have almost no hymen at all. Others may have an imperforate hymen that covers the entirety of the vaginal opening. This can actually cause issues, especially since it prevents menstrual flow from being able to leave the body. Thankfully, this can be addressed with minor surgery. 

The worst part about virginity tests is not their utter uselessness – it’s the very real physical, psychological, and social harm they cause individuals and communities. The World Health Organization has declared virginity testing a human rights violation. Performing an examination of the genitals under false pretenses isn’t a medical procedure – it’s assault. And it can’t become history soon enough.

Resource for those affected by virginity testing:
Sexual Abuse by Medical Professionals from RAINN
We are actively looking to expand this resource list. If you know of any additional resources, please reach out to us at info@unhushed.org

For more information, check out:
Telling the Bees and Other Customs: The Folklore of Rural Crafts by Mark Norman, for all your fun bee folklore
A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister, for more virginity myths and other fun sex history
The Truth About Hymens And Sex from Adam Ruins Everything
Virginity Testing: A Systematic Review by Rose McKeon Olson & Claudia García-Moreno 
Eliminating Virginity Testing from The World Health Organization
A Test With No Answers by Sophia Jones